Zero Hour is a helluva piece of writing. Now tightened from two acts (first premiering in 2006) to intermissionless, time-stopping captivation, Jim Brochu’s one man play offers a no-holds-barred look at the quick, wry, perpetually angry leftist; a boisterous man who, though an actor by profession, longed to just paint. This deeply researched piece, as personal as it is historical, illuminates Samuel Joel (Zero) Mostel. Peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and insults, its serious depiction of reasons for the subject’s dark side, including a pivotal run-in with The House Un-American Activities Committee, provides affecting, whiz-bang dramatization.
Mostel speaks to a New York Times reporter blackmailed into modeling. We don’t hear responses. This cleverly allows Brochu to look directly at his audience while he (actually) sketches. “I don’t want to know your name, this is an interview not a relationship.”
The actor begins with his 1915 birth on “a beautiful little radish farm at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Pitkin Avenue” and ends about to start rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant. Mostel died shortly thereafter.
We hear about his passion for art (since childhood), immigrant Jewish parents that declared him dead when Mostel married outside the faith, his second wife Katie “a gawegus (phonetic) Catholic Rockette”, HER MUTHA!, and his inadvertent entrée into show business. Brochu leans over the drawing table to scream the last two words stentorian and bug-eyed, then lightly resuming the tale as if his outburst had never occurred. Sheer Zero.
He answers the annoying phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League,” screams, swears, slams the receiver down and cheerily says, “that was my wife.”
The subject went from being an art student, to lecturing on art-adding humor, then doing benefits and finally breaking out as a comedian at Barney Josephson’s Café Society. (We see part of the routine. Both physicality and timing are recognizable.) Watch the bird movement of his large head as it jerks around as if gauging the room’s temperature; his eloquent hands, fingers most often splayed, gesturing close to the body – like a smaller man; and the frozen beat he takes to allow humor to land.
“I was a Marxist….Why? WHY???!!!.(ostensibly the reporter has asked) BECAUSE OF HITLER AND FASCISM!” Next comes the WPA, a Hollywood contract cut short when Mostel blew off a Louis B. Mayer party for a Longshoremen benefit, and the life altering HUAC: Communism equaled liberalism equaled Judaism! Names are vehemently named. Participants excoriated. Friends mourned. Part of his testimony is shared. As if things weren’t bad enough, the actor was then run over by a bus. (Did you know this, reader?)
Theater includes famous roles in Marjorie Barkentin’s Ulysses in Nightown, Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gilbert), which suffered near fatal growing pains on its way to Broadway and threw in his path one of Hollywood’s major HUAC informers, and the iconic Fiddler on the Roof, (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein) during which his past came back to haunt the actor. (The actor initially hated both Forum and Tevye, the first iteration of Fiddler.)
We then neatly circle back with palpable regret to lost peers, lost family, and Mostel again forced to leave his art studio for theater. A last line, which refers to what he considered an outrageous request from Katie, couldn’t be better. It leaves us with a knowing smile.
Jim Brochu is so filled with energy, so present, it’s as if he’s performing early in the run of a new show. The actor has honed his character over the years to a degree that brings a whole human being to life. Though familiar mannerisms and speech patterns (including intermittent volume) are employed, this is less a purposeful imitation than top notch channeling.
Director Piper Laurie has done a wonderful job of utilizing the stage, seamlessly evoking mood change in extremely subtle chapters. Pacing is just right. Use of props is completely natural. One assumes this is predominantly the original direction.
Josh Iacovelli’s Scenic Design is detailed and evocative. His Lighting adroitly defines subtly overlapping vignettes.
There’s no credit, but Sound Design is excellent.
Production Photos by Stan Barough
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents
Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour
By Jim Brochu
Directed by Piper Laurie
Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
Through July 9, 2017